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20 Questions With...Elizabeth McGovern

American film star Elizabeth McGovern, opening this month in Dinner with Friends, explains why she prefers London theatre to the Broadway Mafioso.

By • West End


Actress Elizabeth McGovern, an American and long-time London resident, burst onto the scene as a teenager in the 1980 Academy Award-winning film Ordinary People. Subsequent screen appearances have included The House of Mirth, The Wings of a Dove, The Handmaid's Tale, Racing with the Moon, Once upon a Time in America and Ragtime, for which she received an Oscar nomination.

While she continues to make films in Europe and America, McGovern has also striven to carve out a successful stage career. In the UK, her theatre credits have included Hurly Burly (Old Vic), Three Days of Rain (Donmar Warehouse) and The Misanthrope (RSC).

McGovern this month takes on the role of a bitter divorcée in the London premiere of Donald Margulies' Pulitzer Prize-winning Dinner with Friends. Directed by Simon Curtis, the drama about marital relations also stars Samantha Bond, Kevin Anderson and Rolf Saxon.


Date & place of birth
Born on 18 July 1961 in Evanston, Illinois.

Now lives in...
Chiswick, west London. My husband is English and we moved over here nine years ago for his job.

Trained at...
One year only at Julliard in New York

First big break
The film Ordinary People, directed by Robert Redford in 1980. That was my first job ever. In my last semester of high school, I was in a production of Skin of Our Teeth and a friend of a friend who happened to be a professional agent was in the audience. She left a message for me at the school office that, if I was looking for work, she'd help me out. I thought acting would be a good summer job. One of the auditions she sent me to was for Ordinary People.

Career highlights
In film, my favourites have been Ordinary People, Once Upon a Time in America, King of the Hill, Racing with the Moon and She's Having a Baby. Critically, a highlight was Ragtime. It has sort of a cult following. I liked it when I saw it but I don't know if I still would.

On stage, playing Rosalyn in As You Like It as part of New York's Shakespeare in the Park Festival (1991), and Richard Greenberg's Three Days of Rain, directed by Robin Lefevre at the Donmar Warehouse (1999).

Favourite stage production that you've worked on
I loved doing Three Days of Rain. It was a beautiful marriage of cast and text, lovingly directed, and there was a feeling of connecting to the audience, that what we were doing was affecting them. In a small venue like the Donmar, you can let your performance be quite subtle; that felt like luxury. It was such a beautiful play, too. All the actors played both a parent and that character's son or daughter. It was a really interesting exercise as an actor to find ways of expressing the psychological inheritance that a parent passes on.

The RSC's production of The Misanthrope (1996) was also special because it was my first play in London, and it was very exciting to work with Ken Stott. Dinner with Friends is also very special because I love the material, the cast and the director.

Favourite co-star
I love all my co-stars equally in different ways. I haven't stayed in constant touch with a lot of them. My husband and I were in touch with Colin Firth and his wife after Three Days of Rain. At one point, they were going to move in next door to us in Chiswick and we were very excited but the deal fell through.

Favourite director
I feel very lucky to have worked with a lot of great directors - Robert Redford, Steven Soderbergh, Simon Curtis and Robin Lefevre, just to name a few. Recently, I worked with a young film director, Gregor Jordan, on Buffalo Soldiers and I really enjoyed that. I can still have that feeling that directors, even if they're much younger than me, have something to teach me.

Favourite playwright
Among contemporary English playwrights, I like David Hare (he's getting better and better), Michael Frayn and Nick Whitby (To the Green Fields Beyond). Among Americans, I like Donald Margulies and Richard Greenwood. And then, of course, all roads lead back to Shakespeare and Chekhov.

I do feel sorry sometimes for the audience with Shakespeare because I know that inevitably they're only getting about 20% of what the cast is getting from the material. After all, the cast have been living it for so many weeks so the language and the subtleties are much more understandable; they resonate. I played Ophelia in a Broadway production of Hamlet that was so bad you could hear the slapping of seats like gunshots as people got up early to leave for the intermission. That was an unhappy experience superficially because it was not well received, but I still had a great time doing it. For me, it's much more fun to be in a Shakespeare production than to watch it.

What stage role would you most like to play (if you haven't already)?
Any of Tennessee Williams' women. Also lots of roles in plays by Eugene O'Neill and Chekhov.

Did you feel any pressure as a result of your early film success to forsake a stage career?
It didn't even occur to those around me that I would consider theatre. But I was successful in a way that alienated me from others my age and I felt a lot of loneliness. The stage offered me a sense of family that I needed at the time. It became an addiction that I haven't been able to shake since.

Has your film work influenced your work as a stage actress?
Actually, the opposite is true. My work on stage was something I had to work very hard to improve. The work on film I put into a different category, it is what it is. With a film, getting the job is very hard but the performance isn't as much because so much is done for you by others. To give a performance that's relaxed and in control and that hits the target on a stage took a lot more hard work for me. I think stage work has made me a better actress. That said, I do enjoy film. In fact, what I really enjoy is going back and forth between the two. I couldn't imagine being just a film actor. That would not interest me, nor would just being an actor on stage.

What differences have you noticed between performing on stage in the UK versus the US?
London is so central to the culture of this country. In America, there's a movie power base in Los Angeles which is all about big business and then you have people striving to create American theatre in lots of other places. People think New York is the centre of theatre in America but it's a myth. I lived there for 12 years and you cannot make a living in theatre in New York. Broadway is almost like being part of Mafioso family. It's so corrupt and success is a crapshoot. Most of what's there are musicals or English imports. That's because the expenses are so high and New York critics don't give anything else a chance to survive. There's not a real theatre culture. Also, in America, if you start doing too many plays, people become suspicious that your career is on the skids or that you'll become an over-expressive performer. Theatre makes them nervous. Here, if you do consistently good work on stage, film directors do take you seriously.

Also, in this country, having all creative industries - theatre, TV and film - concentrated in one city, London, makes it a much more exciting place to work. All the talent is here and you get the feeling that all sorts of people are taking in your play. In America, plays seem so unimportant to the rest of the culture.

By and large, you've preferred to assume less mainstream roles. Why?
I generally take parts because I respond to the material, and my taste does tend to lean towards smaller scale material. Also, I like to have a very private life and would loathe to sacrifice that; I like my life the way it is. Still, it's not that I don't like mainstream films. The competition for them is huge and I'm simply not offered those parts. To start with, there aren't very many female parts and certainly not many for 40-year-olds.

What advice would you give the government to secure the future of theatre?
I believe a balance has to be struck between wholly funded theatre and theatre that has to have an ability to survive in a commercial world. It can't be 100% one or the other. It's like the argument between capitalism and socialism - the final solution is somewhere in the messy middle. In the great scheme things, I think that balance is more or less struck with theatre. Even though people like to bitch and moan, I still see lots of satisfying theatre.

And I really do believe that theatre is important. In fact, as our society becomes more and more technology oriented, theatre is increasingly important. With smaller and smaller screens and portable DVD players, you can watch a movie anywhere; it has become an isolated experience. With the Internet, too, you don't even have to leave your house anymore, but there is still a need for a community experience. People need an excuse to get out of the house and interact with others, they want to convene and share the viewing of something - theatre satisfies that need. It's something that communities will always need, and the outpouring of technology has only made the need for theatre more acute.

Favourite book
My stock answer in the past has always been A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. But recently, I have also really been responding to some books by Iris Murdoch, Louise Erdrich and Don Delillo.

Favourite holiday destination
We don't go back to the same place over and over, and I have no interest in having a country house. On recent holidays, however, we have had wonderful times in the Dordogne, St Lucia and Barcelona.

What do you like/dislike about living in the UK?
I love the way I can combine the feelings of living in both a family suburban and an urban city environment. I love the access to Europe and the people, my friends. I love that stores (although less so now) close at 6.00pm and that people are prepared to say enough is enough already. That's a relief after New York where enough is never enough. At the same time, when I need to buy something, I also hate that the stores close, and I don't like the weather.

Why did you want to accept your role in Dinner with Friends?
It's a very funny, witty and provocative look at contemporary relationships. I find it fascinating how some couples stay together and some fall apart. The play explores the morality of monogamy and the different ramifications of divorce.

What's your favourite line from Dinner with Friends ?
"You are so paranoid."

Has anything unusual or amusing happened during rehearsals?
Nothing in particular, but we're always laughing.

Much of Dinner with Friends is centred around food. Do you have a favourite dish?
I have a recipe that I got from a card in Sainbury's for pear, dolcelatta cheese and walnut salad. It's something I can do and it tastes very good, too.

- Elizabeth McGovern was speaking to Terri Paddock


Dinner with Friends opens at the Hampstead Theatre on 28 June 2001, following previews from 21 June.


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